King Lear is a tragedy by
William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1603 and
1606, and is considered one of his greatest works. The play is based on
the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman king. It has
been widely adapted for stage and screen, with the part of Lear being
played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.
There are two distinct
versions of the play: The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and
Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, which appeared in quarto in
1608, and The Tragedy of King Lear, which appeared in the First Folio in
1623, a more theatrical version. The two texts are commonly printed in a
conflated version, although many modern editors have argued that each
version has its individual integrity.
After the Restoration the
play was often modified by theatre practitioners who disliked its dark
and depressing tone, but since the 19th century it has been regarded as
one of Shakespeare's supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly
noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and
Lear, who is old, wants
to retire from power. He decides to divide his realm among his three
daughters, and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best.
Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more
than anything in the world, which pleases him. Cordelia speaks
temperately and honestly, which annoys him. In his anger he disinherits
her, and divides the kingdom between the other two. Kent objects to this
unfair treatment, but Lear is further enraged by such contradiction, and
banishes him from the country. Cordelia's two suitors enter. Learning
that she is disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but
the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her anyway.
Lear announces he will
live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, the Dukes
of Albany and Cornwall. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred
knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak
privately, agreeing that Lear is old and foolish.
Edmund resents his
bastard status, and plots to supplant his legitimate older brother
Edgar. He tricks their father Gloucester with a forged letter, making
him think Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in
disguise, and Lear hires "Caius" as a servant. Lear discovers that now
that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to
behave better and reduce his retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's
home. The Fool mocks Lear's misfortune. Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar,
and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and
proclaims him outlaw.
Kent meets Oswald at
Gloucester's home, quarrels with him, and is put in the stocks by Regan
and her husband Cornwall.When Lear arrives, he objects, but Regan takes
the same line as Goneril. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives
and echoes Regan. Lear yields completely to his rage. He rushes out into
a storm to rant against his ungrateful daughters, accompanied by the
mocking Fool. Kent later follows to protect him. Gloucester protests
Lear's mistreatment. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Lear meets
Edgar, in the guise of Tom o'Bedlam, that is, a madman. Edgar babbles
madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Gloucester leads them all to
Edmund betrays Gloucester
to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. He shows a letter from his father to
the King of France asking for help against them; and in fact a French
army has landed in Britain. Gloucester is arrested, and Cornwall gouges
out his eyes. But one of Cornwall's servants is so outraged by this that
he attacks and fatally wounds Cornwall. Regan kills the mutinous
servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund tricked him; then she turns
him out to wander the heath too. Edgar in his madman's guise meets
blinded Gloucester on the heath. Gloucester begs "Tom" to lead him to a
cliff, so that he may jump to his death.
Edmund meets Goneril, and
she finds him more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she
regards as "milk-livered". Albany is disgusted by the sisters' treatment
of Lear, and the mutilation of Gloucester, and denounces Goneril. Kent
leads Lear to the French army, which is accompanied by Cordelia. But
Lear is half-mad, and terribly embarassed by his earlier follies. Albany
leads the British army to meet the French. Regan too is attracted to
Edmund, and the two sisters become jealous. She sends Oswald with
letters to Edmund, and also tells Oswald to kill Gloucester if he sees
him. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his
voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall.
They meet Lear, who is now completely mad. Lear rants that the whole
world is corrupt and runs off.
Oswald tries to kill
Gloucester, but is slain by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds a
letter from Goneril to Edmund suggesting the murder of Albany. Kent and
Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness largely passes. Regan,
Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their forces. Albany insists that
they fight the French invaders, but not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two
sisters lust for Edmund, who has made promises to both. He considers the
dilemma, and plots the deaths of Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. Edgar gives
Albany Goneril's letter. The armies meet in battle, the British defeat
the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Edmund sends them off
with secret orders for execution.
The victorious British
leaders meet, and Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany
exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril, and proclaims Edmund a
traitor. Regan collapses; Goneril has poisoned her. Edmund defies
Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears to fight Edmund,
and defeats him. Albany shows Goneril's letter to her; she flees in
shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself.
Offstage, Goneril stabs herself, and confesses to poisoning Regan. Edmund, dying, reveals his order to kill Lear and Cordelia. But it is too late: Cordelia is dead, though Lear slew the killer. Lear recognizes Kent. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but Lear is too far gone in grief and hardship. He collapses and dies. Albany offers to share power between Kent and Edgar but Kent, overwhelmed with sadness, refuses. The play is not clear (depending on the version: Quarto or Folio), but either Albany or Edgar is crowned at the end.